There will always be debate over who the best football referee of all time is, and whether or not you have a biased opinion depends on whether your team or the opposing team benefited from the referee.
Our TOP 10 list includes some of history’s most famous football referees, but that isn’t the only criterion we used. In order to determine who the best referee in the world is, we attempted to eliminate all bias.
So, before you read our rankings, who would you pick as the best referee in the world today?
10 Best Football Referees of All Time
Career: 1988 – 2005
Matches officiated: over 150
Pierluigi Colina began his football refereeing career in Serie C2, but he was quickly promoted to officiating Serie B and Serie A matches due to a natural talent for the job.
Pierluigi Colina has covered every major competition in his extensive career, from UEFA Champions League finals to World Cup Finals and EURO matches. He has also referred in Olympic games. He is still regarded as the gold standard of firm and objective refereeing.
His accomplishments include being named IFFHS’s The World’s Best Referee of the Year six times and Serie A Referee of the Year seven times. In 2011, he was inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame. Colina was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2003 on the initiative of the President of the country.
Currently he serves as the Chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee.
Frank de Bleeckere
Career: 1984 – 2012
Matches officiated: over 70
Frank de Bleeckere made his debut in the Jupiler League, where he first received a lot of praise for his positive attitude toward opposing teams. He went on to referee championships in Belgium’s first division from 1994 until 1998 when he became an official FIFA referee.
De Bleeckere has officiated in over 70 international matches.
Frank has been appointed to the UEFA Referee Development Panel by the UEFA Executive Committee until the end of the mandate in 2023.
Career: 1993 – 2011
Matches officiated: /
Óscar Julián Ruiz Acosta is the most famous Colombian referee to have ever graced the football pitch. Óscar Julián Ruiz first whistled at the professional soccer tournament in Colombia in 1993. He started his international career in 1995.
He not only refereed but also served as a FIFA referee instructor and a member of the Conmebol Referees Commission for four years until 2011.
IFFHS ranked him second in the World Ranking of the First Decade of the 21st Century, thus becoming South America’s best referee during that time period, and seventh in the World Ranking of the 2nd Decade (2001-2020).
Óscar Julián Ruiz is also a successful lawyer in his native Colombia, demonstrating again his ability to apply rules and regulations. However, FIFA opened an investigation against him for sexual abuse in May 2022.
Career: 2002 – Present
Matches officiated: Over 420
Daniele Orsato’s reputation is spotless, with both football players and club officials viewing him as a model for confidence and respect for fair play. He began his career in Lega Pro in 2002 and received his FIFA international badge in 2010.
Since 2012, the Italian has refereed in Champions League matches. In 2018, he made his World Cup debut.
Daniele fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he took charge of the highly expected 2020 UEFA Champions League final in Lisbon between Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.
IFFHS named him the World’s Best Man Referee 2020 (The International Federation of Football History and Statistics).
Kim Milton Nielsen
Career: 1975 – 2005
Matches officiated: Over 180
Kim Milton Nielsen, with a height of 1.96 cm, is one of the most recognisable referees for football fans worldwide, towering over all players and coaches.
The Danish referee began his career at 15 and continued to referee for 30 years until he retired at 45. He was in his late twenties when he began officiating in Denmark’s top flight and earned his FIFA badge.
Nielsen has over 130 international games under his belt. He is the first referee in the history of the UEFA Champions League to have officiated in 50 games.
Kim Milton Nielsen has a parallel career as an information technology manager.
Career: 1998 – 2015
Matches officiated: 342
Pedro Proença Oliveira Alves Garcia is one of Portugal’s most famous football referees, having officiated in the first Taça da Liga final in 2008. He began refereeing at the age of 18 in 1988 and has steadily progressed since then. Pedro was promoted to the FIFA list in 2003, five years after he began overseeing matches in the top tier of the Portuguese League in 1998.
Proença has directed 342 matches, including games in the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Euro, and FIFA World Cup. He reached his pinnacle when he officiated the UEFA EURO 2012 final, becoming the first Portuguese official to do so.
He is currently the President of the Portuguese Football League.
Career: 1973 – 1991
Matches officiated: /
For big UEFA and FIFA appointed referees, Michel Vautrot is one of the veterans of the game. He refereed mostly during the 80s, a time when kicking the ball was more part of the game of soccer without today’s multimillion salaries and all the media attention.
Throughout his career, Michel Vautrot refereed 5 FIFA World Cup games: two in 1982 and three in 1990. His crown achievement is the Club World Cup final in 1983. To this day, he holds the record of having taken charge of 5 National Cup finals.
Following his career, Michel Vautrot worked as a FIFA instructor and National Refereeing Technical Director of the French Football Federation.
Age: Died in 2019, aged 58
Career: 1985 – 1998
Matches officiated: /
Peter Mikkelsen is another Danish referee whose career has earned him a spot in our TOP 10 best football referees of all time rankings.
Since 1985, the Danish teacher has been a referee in the Danish Superliga. He became a FIFA referee the same year and retired from international football in 1996. He has officiated in five FIFA World Cup matches (two in 1990 and three in 1994), as well as two UEFA European Championship tournaments in 1992 and 1996.
After retiring from refereeing in 1998, Mikkelsen became a member of the Danish Football Association’s (DBU) elite referee group and continued to serve UEFA as a referee observer. He was a member of FIFA’s Referees Committee for many years.
Age: Died in 2021, aged 65
Career: 1984 – 2000
Officiated matches: 94
Sándor Puhl is, without a doubt, Hungary’s best referee. The football world admired him for his calm authority and unbiased enforcement of the rules. He whistled 62 international matches, 13 Champions League games, and 19 UEFA Cup games.
Between 1994 and 1997, he was named the IFFHS World’s Best Referee of the Year four times in a row!
Puhl remained involved in refereeing after his career ended, serving as vice-chairman of the Hungarian Football Federation’s (MLSZ) referees committee from 2010 to 2012.
Career: 1989 – 2014
Officiated matches: 533
Howard Webb followed in his father’s footsteps (who had been a referee for 35 years) and began refereeing in local leagues in 1989. Webb was promoted to the National Football League Referees List in 2000 and took charge of Premier League games in 2003. In 2005, he was appointed as a FIFA referee. In his career he has officiated 533 matches!
The last appointments of one of the best football referees were in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final and the final match of the FIFA World Cup round of 16 in 2014.
Following his retirement, he became Chairman of the Referees in the Football Federation of Saudi Arabia and General Manager of the USA MLS.
Football, or soccer, whatever you want to call it, outperforms both the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl in terms of overall popularity, with no close second in terms of viewership.
It’s a social phenomenon, which is why determining who is the best football referee in the world is so important, as they are the ones who govern the sport we love and enjoy the most.
So, have you decided on the greatest referee of all time?